Science for Non-Scientists: Essential Titles in Popular Science | Collection Development

Build popular science collections that support the scientific inquiries of non-scientists, with titles that will hold the interest of the layperson without sacrificing nuance or accuracy.

It is astonishing what knowledge humans have gained by looking down at the dirt and up to the stars. Using mere observation—a technique open to almost anyone—a reader can make discoveries about the natural world. As a result, popular science has wide-ranging appeal. Although practicing scientists and students are more likely to turn to technical publications and textbooks, popular science has long been the recourse of the curious amateur and is ideal for laypeople who seek to understand the world around them.
 
The genre is broad enough to encompass big picture issues such as “What is the cosmos?” and everyday questions such as “What’s in my ketchup?” Titles that cover major discoveries allow readers to understand how the modern world was created step by step, building on the “shoulders of giants” without having to read Newton themselves. Those deliberately seeking to increase their understanding of scientific progress will search out sweeping surveys such as The Earth’s Deep History, whereas other readers will be hooked by specific concerns directly relevant to their lives. In most cases, it is the information need that motivates subject selection.
 
Keeping the reader’s interest is key and talking about science is not easy: how does the author explain the subject accurately, without losing nuance, while still being entertaining enough that readers want to keep going? Adults are still fascinated by the subjects they loved as children and there are always new publications covering perennial favorites such as paleontology and space exploration. Other books on less beloved topics, such as math, take advantage of humor, enthusiasm, short form essays, or illustration, such as Our Sun: Biography of a Star (a coffee table book) and The Joy of X (a collection of brief essays).
 
Matching skills to reader demand, it is unsurprising that many of the books here are written by journalists who know how to skillfully walk the line between meticulous detail and narrative, crafting titles that are a pleasure to read and will draw interest regardless of subject. That said, reading the works of scientist-authors can be exciting too; akin to the thrill of seeing an original piece of art for the first time. The enthusiasm readers have for these authors is engaging in its own right, and many patrons prefer the voice of an expert.
 
This list guides readers through all types of scientific inquiry and aids librarians building collections to support their explorations.
 
Starred (redstar) titles are considered essential for most libraries.
 
 

THE BIG PICTURE

Carey, Nessa. The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance. Columbia Univ. 2013. 339p. ISBN 9780231161169. $26.95.
Those familiar with biology will likely recall Jean-Baptiste Lamarck as the proponent of a disproven alternative to Darwinian evolutionary genetics. However, as Carey reveals, things are not so simple. Using irreverent examples, she describes the cutting-edge field of epigenetics.
 
 redstarDe Waal, Frans. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Norton. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780393246186. $27.95.
Using extensive research, primatologist de Waal carefully points out how scientists have set unfair tests for animals. In this best-selling book, he argues that by failing to consider the unique evolutionary context of primates, corvids, and cephalopods, humans reveal more about our own brains than our subjects.
 
Dugatkin, Lee Alan & Lyudmila Trut. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution. Univ. of Chicago. 2018. 240p. ISBN 9780226444185. $26.
Dogs are beloved creatures, but how did they come to be? That question inspired Soviet scientists to risk imprisonment by conducting genetic experiments with foxes. Expanding on that story, this book tells readers much about how animal domestication took place.
 
Hawking, Stephen. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. Bantam. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9781984819192. $25.
A shorter introduction to Hawking’s A Brief History of Time that doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of physics. Hawking was working on this version at the time of his death in 2018; the book was completed by his colleagues and family.
 
redstarKolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Holt. 2014. 319p. ISBN 9780805092998. $35.
It is one thing to know that the majority of Earth’s species have gone extinct; it is another to be confronted with evidence that it is happening again, and this time because of us. Kolbert’s winning book is a must for any popular science collection.
 
Natarajan, Priyamvada. Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos. Yale Univ. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780300227031. pap. $16.
Humankind’s perception of the universe has undergone several revolutions, and each time it causes controversy as people feel their world is shifting. In this accessible overview of the cosmos, astrophysicist Natarajan covers the search for dark matter and the limits of the known universe.
 
redstarNoble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: Data Discrimination in the Age of Google. New York Univ. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9781479837243. pap. $28.
Computer science is not a lab science, but it touches our lives in ways that are far too important to ignore. Noble’s groundbreaking research into the ways Google’s search results accentuate racist and sexist stereotypes should not be missed.
 
Rudwick, Martin J. S. Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters. Univ. of Chicago. 2014. 360p. ISBN 9780226203935. $30.
More than any other title here, this expansive book shows the development of a scientific field, and the people who played a part in it, from early stages to modern theories. Rudwick touches on geology, paleontology, evolution, and philosophy.
 
redstarSaini, Angela. Superior: The Return of Race Science. Beacon. 2019. 256p. IBSN 9780807076910. $26.95.
Eugenics and race science are disciplines that readers often tend to think are in the distant past. Saini finds lingering evidence of these disturbing ideas, which are still with us in the form of fringe journals and the underlying racism of our institutions.
 
Shah, Sonia. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Coronaviruses and Beyond. Picador. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781250793249. pap. $18.
The descriptions of historic pandemics, particularly cholera, and modern potentials like SARS will seem eerily prophetic today. Chapters cover topics such as the jump from animals to humans, the role of mass transportation, overcrowding, and how politics affect the spread of disease.
 
Sobel, Dava. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. Penguin. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780143111344. pap. $18.
The title refers to the photographic plates stored at the Harvard observatory; plates which women on staff in the early 20th century painstaking studied because they were not allowed to use telescopes. Their long-ignored contribution to astronomy is wonderfully brought to life by Sobel.
 
Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Knopf. 2016. 496p. ISBN 9780385350662. $35.
As Wulf tells, von Humboldt’s science was not lab-bound, but in the natural world where he battled the elements as he sought to understand Earth’s secrets. Wulf expertly narrates how the scientist set the foundations for future ecological study.
 

EVERYDAY SCIENTIST

Baron, David. American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. Liveright. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781631490163. $27.95.
With the second total solar eclipse in a decade about to cross the United States in 2024, this deep dive into the 1878 eclipse is worth revisiting. Baron weaves a compelling tale about ambitious scientists hoping to make a name for themselves and their country.
 
redstarBlum, Deborah. The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Penguin. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780143111122. pap. $18.
Today, consumers may debate whether GMO foods need to be labeled, but in 19th-century America, food additives could be deadly. Blum tells the story of human volunteers who tested food additives in the simplest way possible—by eating them.
 
Bray, Hiawatha. You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves. Basic. 2014. 258p. ISBN 9780465032853. $27.99.
Using non-technical descriptions and personal stories, Bray takes readers from ancient Polynesian mariners to Google Maps, explaining complex issues like privacy and surveillance. An intriguing exploration of a technology people have come to take for granted.
 
Czerski, Helen. Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. Norton. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780393248968. $26.95.
In this poetic and meandering look at everyday physics, the chosen subjects follow Czerski’s whimsy, touching on her specialty of bubbles in detail. The intriguing stories convey wonder as well as information, spanning many aspects of daily life, from whales to teacups.
 
Goodell, Jeff. The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. Back Bay Books. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780316260206. $17.99.
Of particular interest to those dwelling in coastal areas, this book addresses the pressing problem of sea-level rise. Goodell travels the world, visiting at-risk areas and interviewing experts about how they plan to cope with the effects of climate change.
 
McDermid, Val. Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us about Crime. Grove. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780802123916. $26.
Each chapter of this engaging book reviews a different aspect of forensic science, familiar to devotees of procedural shows. McDermid’s experience as a crime writer makes makes the case history fascinating and lends it the same excitement as a courtroom drama.
 
Miodownik, Mark. Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives. Houghton Harcourt. 2019. 256p. ISBN 9780544850194. $26.
In 13 chapters, each about a different liquid, Miodownik reflects on a recent transatlantic plane ride. From the oceans viewed from above to the liquid mantle of the Earth’s surface, he relates the liquids to everyday experiences and world events.
 
Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Scribner. 2010. 571p. ISBN 9781439107959. $30.
Doctors have been battling cancer since the first days of medicine. This bestselling book allows non-specialists to view the world of cancer treatment and research, from the days when aggressive surgery was the only option, to modern experimental techniques.
 
Schlesinger, Henry R. The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution. Harper Perennial. 2011. 320p. ISBN 9780061442940. $16.99.
More so than any other aspect, battery life is what limits the use of a smartphone and determines its weight. This eye-opening book is still relevant, explaining how our increasing mobile lives are made possible.
 
redstarYong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. Ecco. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9780062368591. $27.99.
The human microbiome is one of the newest frontiers of scientific research. Yong dispels myths surrounding them and focuses on the continuum of how these creatures interact with their hosts, which, as with many creatures, depends on their evolutionary niche.
 

NOSTALGIA AND MORE

redstarBrusatte, Stephen. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World. Morrow. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780062490421. $29.99.
Every kid loves dinosaurs, but few are lucky enough to grow up to hunt them full time. Brusatte’s vibrant descriptions of digs pale only in comparison to the dinosaurs he finds; not just T. Rex, but the feathered Zhenyuanlong suni.
 
Kean, Sam. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Little, Brown. 391p. ISBN 9780316051644. $31.
While not a systematic introduction to the elements, this delightful miscellany will draw in readers, even those with no previous knowledge of chemistry. The stories are about people as much as elements and illuminate lesser-known corners of the periodic table.
 
redstarRoach, Mary. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Norton. 2009. 319p. ISBN 9780393334791. $16.95.
No list of popular science books would be complete without Mary Roach and this, one of her most entertaining volumes, is not to be missed. The engaging narrative is peppered with jokes and racy details, but for all that is neither salacious nor frivolous. See LJ’s interview with Roach about her new book, Fuzz.
 
redstarSacks, Oliver. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Vintage. 2002. 337p. ISBN 9780375704048. $16.95.
Sacks’s love for chemistry is on full display in this memoir, especially as he shares his excitement on first seeing the periodic table when he was 12. The noted neurologist died in 2015; this personal account is an excellent introduction to the man behind the science.
 
The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the Kitchen. 2012. 486p. ed. by Cook’s Illustrated. ISBN 9781933615981. $40.
A scientific approach to cooking techniques and equipment, accompanied by dozens of recipes. There are many sections displaying the results of experiments from the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen, like how much oven temperatures can vary.
 
Strogatz, Steven. The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity. Mariner. 2013. 316p. ISBN 9780544105850. $15.95.
Short essays based on the author’s New York Times columns show the beauty and joy of mathematics. Although each essay points to practical applications, Strogatz doesn’t make his readers work for it. The book is easy to digest and supports reading chapters in the order that most appeals.
 
Swaby, Rachel. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World. Crown. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780553446791. $17.
Brief biographical sketches profile one scientist per essay, enough to read one per week, as Swaby suggests. She omits the ubiquitous Marie Curie, but includes other superstars like Florence Nightingale (statistics), Rosalind Franklin (genetics), Lise Meitner (physics), and more.

Cate Schneiderman is Outreach Coordinator at Iwasaki Library, Emerson College. She has reviewed for LJ since 2014.

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